Gov. Ned Lamont signed an executive order Friday establishing a “Blue Ribbon Panel” of public and private sector leaders, early childhood experts, educators and parents tasked with designing a strategic plan for the state’s child care system by the end of this year.
During a visit to pharmaceutical company Boehringer Ingelheim’s on-site child care center in Ridgefield, which hosted the signing ceremony, Lamont emphasized the role child care plays in enabling parents to work at a time when many employers have open jobs to fill.
“We’re never going to get this state going again unless everybody has the opportunity to work,” Lamont said. “We have tens of thousands of folks, often single parents, often moms, who can’t get back into the workforce. That’s why child care is so absolutely vital to what we have to do.”
Lamont also took the opportunity Friday to plug one of his legislative proposals, a 25% tax credit for companies who subsidize child care costs for their employees — whether through direct benefits to those employees, contracting with outside child care providers or building their own facilities on site, as Boehringer Ingelheim has done. “What a difference that’s gonna make,” he said.
Boehringer Ingelheim is among the companies represented on the 23-member Blue Ribbon Panel, along with submarine manufacturer General Dynamics Electric Boat, hospital system Yale New Haven Health, Travelers Insurance and the Connecticut Business and Industry Association — many of whom came forward last year to ask lawmakers to fund child care.
Paul O. Robertson, deputy commissioner of the Department of Economic and Community Development, said including the private sector in developing the strategic plan will “bring scale to the situation.” The panel could use the extra help, given the task before it.
By December of this year, Lamont’s Blue Ribbon Panel will deliver a five-year strategic plan for the state’s child care system, with recommendations across four broad areas: equity and access; workforce and quality; early childhood systems; and funding and costs.
The panel will hold monthly meetings and public hearings through the spring and summer. After an initial meeting next month, there will be a forum in May focusing on what Early Childhood Commissioner Beth Bye said will be the group’s “biggest focus” — the early childhood workforce. Child care workers, several of the panel members noted in their remarks Friday, are among the lowest-paid professionals in today’s labor force.
Bye said the panel marks the culmination, in some ways, of work the early childhood office has been leading for several years, funded in part by federal grant money. Beginning around 2018, early childhood leaders in Connecticut have been planning, developing research questions and conducting a wide range of in-depth analyses of the child care market that will inform the panel’s decisions.
Their work will also be informed by research and recommendations from national organizations. Bye highlighted the participation of national education policy organization The Hunt Institute, which will provide expertise to the panel. She said it will also examine and consider child care policy recommendations from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Bipartisan Policy Center think tank.
“This is critical for child care right now, because the pandemic just put a magnifying glass on the problems that child care had been facing for decades,” she said. “Programs are having a hard time making it because they can only charge parents what parents can afford.”
Lamont and the legislature have vowed to make child care a priority this year, but advocates say the proposals don’t go far enough. Expanding access to all parents while raising wages for teachers and boosting program capacity would cost the state an estimated $738 million annually, advocates say. That’s nearly three times the state’s current allocation.
Leaders of child care operations say costs have gone up steadily in the last four years, due to inflation and the state’s rising minimum wage. But during that time, most of the state’s subsidies to child care operators have remained flat, and federal pandemic emergency funding is now being phased out.
“We need systemic funding,” said Marc Jaffe, chief executive of Children’s Learning Centers of Fairfield County. Jaffe said state subsidies, which cover about $8,900 per student at his facilities, would need to rise to $14,500 per student in order to stabilize his operation. “That will create a sustainable funding stream for the industry. That will allow us to invest, increase wages, and make us able to at least [be on] a somewhat more level playing field.”
Lamont, who has repeatedly emphasized fiscal discipline even as the state’s surplus reaches record levels, said Friday that he’s open to increased funding for child care if the panel recommends it.
“We do a lot of subsidies, perhaps we ought to be doing even more,” he said. “We’ll hear from each and every one of you on that.”
The governor painted the panel initiative as a response to federal promises that never materialized.
“I was really hoping the feds were going to step up and make day care universally available,” he said, flanked at the podium Friday by many of the panel’s members. “As we’re waiting for that day, what can we as a state do? That’s why you guys are here.”